Witnessing a virtuosic young musician inhabit a canonical piece is exciting enough, but Ballet San Jose is providing a rare and captivating experience indeed through its budding relationship with Rachel Lee.

One of the world's most heralded violinists younger than 30 -- Lee turned 25 on Monday -- she represents the ostentatious fulfillment of Ballet San Jose's recent commitment to return live music to every production.

Adding to the solid foundation established by conductor George Daugherty and Symphony Silicon Valley, Lee made an indelible impression at the ballet's gala in November, which was also her Bay Area debut. Lee returns this weekend for her first regular season performance with the ballet, interpreting a program that ranges from Bach to Bruch.

Violinist Rachel Lee will perform with Ballet San Jose in "Program 2," the company’s next production.Photo: Joel Benjamin
Violinist Rachel Lee will perform with Ballet San Jose in "Program 2," the company's next production. Photo: Joel Benjamin ( Joel Benjamin )

New challenge

Eager to tackle a new challenge, she approached her role not as a soloist on a pedestal, but as a collaborator seeking the best way to serve the production.

While the music ranges across the centuries, the choreography is tightly focused on neoclassical masterworks, including two company premieres by Sir Frederick Ashton, "Les Rendezvous," set to music from Daniel Francois Esprit Auber's opera "L'Enfant prodigue," and "Meditation from Thais," set to Jules Massenet's "Meditation." From the gala, the company also reprises choreographer Stanton Welch's "Clear," set to Bach's Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor and the first and second movements from the Violin Concerto in G minor, and Clark Tippet's Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, set to Max Bruch's famous, oft-interpreted concerto.


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First time with ballet

"These are typically showy violin pieces, and you're thinking, what do I want to get across with this?" Lee says. "But the gala was my first time working with ballet dancers, so it was something new not only working on details of the music, but seeing what the dancers would be doing and the effect of the music on the dancing, and vice versa.

"I was really part of something much larger, and I was changing phrasing, timing and rhythm."

Lee connected with the ballet through Daugherty, who had collaborated with her in several previous contexts. He had every reason to believe she would dazzle ("She's one of the preeminent young violinist of her generation," he says). He was delighted, if not surprised, by her interest in working with the dancers, rather than simply turning in a brilliant performance.

"Most soloists come in and just want to play it their way," Daugherty says. "But it's been a total collaboration with Rachel. One goal since I joined Ballet San Jose is to make sure the music is as world-class as the dancing onstage, and that was accomplished having a violinist of her stature collaborate with us. We've set out to make it a partnership, rather than have the soloists exist in their separate worlds."

Deep interpretation

As Lee describes the process of honing each performance, it's easy to see how a soloist can deepen her interpretation by responding to the action on the stage.

"As a musician we're always thinking of how this sound would be embodied in gravity and space," she says. "To see that take place in front of me was an incredibly eye-opening experience. And on a personal level it was enlightening to see how intuitively the ballet dancers felt the music, expressing a musicality that I had thought was solely the territory of musicians."

Lee isn't the only musician featured this weekend.

On Bach's Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, Lee joins forces with Pamela Hakl, Symphony Silicon Valley's principal oboe. One of the ensemble's key players -- she's performed memorable oboe solos in the ballet's productions of "Swan Lake," "Nutcracker," and "Romeo and Juliet" -- Hakl is also a member of the Opera San Jose orchestra and served as principal oboe of the San Jose Symphony from 1980 until its final performance in 2002.

Given Daugherty's strong relationship with Lee (they're both represented by the powerful IMG Artists management agency), the odds seem good that she'll be involved in future Ballet San Jose productions. Whatever she does, keeping an eye on her is sure to be rewarding.

More than a musician

Unlike many prodigious young artists, Lee seems to have developed into a person who doesn't define herself solely through her craft. A protege of Itzhak Perlman since the age of 10, she graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English literature and went on to earn a master's studying with Miriam Fried at the New England Conservatory.

Upon moving back to New York City, she took an internship with the PBS interview show "Charlie Rose," which she had spent many an hour watching.

"I'm a very curious person in general, and I feel antsy to explore other interests," Lee says. "I hope it enriches my musicianship. It was really fun. I was mainly doing research, and got to meet a lot of amazing people.

"Music is always how I express myself, but I like to write, and media are part of how I enter music. I like to think of stories and history as I'm playing, imagining what the composers look like."

ballet san jose

What: Ballet San Jose's "Program Two"
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 1:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Where: San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd.
Tickets: $30-$105, 408-288-2800, www.balletsj.org